Technology’s Saving Grace
By Marcy Driehaus
While some may allow their past to keep them from moving forward, this week’s Woman of the Week has always chosen to push fearlessly into the future. She has colorfully remarked at one point in time that, “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” With words like these and the oomph behind everything she has said and done, Grace Hopper, “the first lady of software”, serves as a good example for all women.
Among the hustle and bustle of New York City on December 9, 1906 was the birth of a woman who would leave lasting impression on the world of technology. This woman’s name is Grace (Brewster Murray) Hopper, and her influence has impacted countless lives over the years with her innumerable advancements in the computer industry.
Hopper’s parents, Walter Murray (insurance broker) and Mary Van Horne, were both avid believers in a solid education, one that is up to par with their son’s, for both of their daughters. With this in mind, they did everything in their power to nourish Hopper’s mind and encourage her inquisitive instincts and evident intellect. She attended two private all-girl schools in New York, Graham School and Schoonmakers SchoolBeing which aided in nurturing her natural gifts and abilities. Along with being provided with a substantial education, Hopper also tried to teach herself some things at home. Being the curious and brilliant girl that she was growing up, Hopper often found her time split between engaging in a standard playful childhood while simultaneously indulging herself in scientific happenings. Her curiosity and inevitable excellence became evident at the mere age of seven when Hopper decided to completely dissemble her alarm clock in order to learn how it worked. Upon realizing she could not put it back together, she took to stealing pieces from the other alarm clocks in her house without her mother’s knowledge. Aside from conducting wacky experiments such as this one, Hopper was also an active reader and piano player, proving to be diverse in her interests and talents.
As far as academic journeys go, Hopper has quite a track record. After spending a year studying at Hartridge School in Plainfield in New Jersey, she went on to attend Vassar College in 1924 where she studied mathematics and physics. Once she received her BA in 1928, she decided to start her mathematics research at Yale University. In the midst of her prestigious academic endeavors, Hopper married Vincent Foster Hopper, a teacher at NYU, in 1930. Not allowing her marriage to jade her priorities, Hopper continued to study at Yale and was later awarded an MA later that same year. A year later, she took on a teaching position at her alma mater, Vassar College, and taught there until 1943. After she was honored with a doctorate from Yale and finished her studies at NYU, her interests began to shift.
WWII stirred a sense of patriotism within many US citizens, thus triggering many volunteers willing to go fight for their beloved country. Hopper was among these volunteers. She was determined to somehow assist in the United States’ efforts in the war but her age (now 34) was holding her back. Hopper wasn’t the type of gal, however, to let anything stand in the way of her desires. The bold young woman managed to persuade the Naval Institute to accept her in 1943. After her training, she was stationed to work at the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at the Cruft Laboratories at Harvard University where she worked vigorously on the Harvard Mark I computer. Her hard work clearly paid off considering that as the end of WWII was nearing, Hopper was already working on the Harvard II computer. With this new technology came many new discoveries and advancements. It was in the Harvard II computer where the first ever glitch or “bug” was found. After she ended her active duty in 1946, Hopper continued teaching and working on new assets to the computer world, including both the Mark II and Mark III computers.
In 1949, Hopper joined forces with the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and served as a Senior Mathematician for their company. During her time there, she threw herself into various projects, such as designing a compiler (a computer program that transforms codes into different computer languages) and working on the UNIVAC computer.
From here on out, Hopper went back and forth from working on her compiler to serving as the Director of Automatic Programming Development of the UNIVAC Division to going back to being in active duty for the navy once again. Eventually, Hopper retired from her hectic professions, all the while still leaving her mark on every institution she had been involved with throughout her lifetime. She acquired an impressive and borderline overwhelming amount of accolades over the years, prominent ones being when she was named the first computer science Man of the Year by the Data Processing Management Association in 1969, receiving the Harry M Goode Memorial Award in 1970, being the first woman to be elected Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973, being elected to the National Academy of Engineering and the Legion of Merit, and being awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George Bush in 1991.
Grace Hopper was remembered on her 107th birthday on Monday, December 10. In honor of this remarkable woman, Google chose her to feature her as their “Google Doodle” on Monday. This “doodle”, or animation, featured Mrs. Hopper working on her compiler and making codes and languages easier to interpret, which is essentially what she was known for. By Google recognizing her through a simple animation, Hopper’s talents and achievements were exposed to people all over the world who are now able to appreciate her contributions to technology. It’s vital to acknowledge all of the women whose efforts in math and science usually go unnoticed, and Grace Hopper is a great person to start with. So to all women, especially those who want to one day be future computer scientists or mathematicians, keep in mind the wise words of Hopper herself: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”